A look at the Brodhead legacy

A campus that's more nimble in conceiving its programs, more purposeful in connecting knowledge and practice, and more global in expanding its reach.
December 14, 2016

If you’re approaching Dick Brodhead to sum up his presidency—is “exit interview” really a good term?—there are a couple of things you discover. One is that he’s not comfortable reeling off his roster of presidential achievements. Another is that he’s delighted, for the purpose of conversation, to let go of the suit jacket, leave the administrative enclave of the Allen Building, and find a corner for conversation in the restored and reinvigorated West Union Building.

West Union is itself a product of this presidency, one dividend from a fundraising campaign currently smashing through its $3.25 billion goal, and one sign of the most intensive building phase since the original campus took shape. Brodhead is loath to disturb a student who is ensconced in a small lounge space, in a deep-reading mode. So he and his interviewer move on, ending up alongside a large curtain wall: to one side, an Italian-theme eatery; on the other, a view out onto the West Campus Plaza.

No surprise to find that Brodhead is interrupted all the time in this public setting—students, staff members, even visiting alumni who are sampling the new space. Private conversation is hard. That’s okay. Here is Duke’s president, happy enough to survey these thirteen years, but also happy to be surveying the scene around him, to be looking out on the campus and beyond the campus. That’s a guiding theme of his presidency: These days, to be Dukeified, you might say, is to be outward-looking.

Thirteen years ago, Brodhead reflected on his decades as a student, English department professor, and administrator at Yale. One could use many positive adjectives to describe Yale, he said. But the word “young” would not appear on the list. That seemed to explain the appeal he found in Duke—an adolescent still forming its identity.

And today? Compared to other universities, Duke is still young. But, he says, it’s all about being young at heart. “It really has to do with the spirit. Other places have been prestigious for decades, and so the academic unit is a powerful, organizing force. Getting people to collaborate across units is just very difficult. The various parts have their place at Duke. But there is so much in our history that shows the benefits to be accrued from innovation, from collaboration. People are less reluctant to try something here.”

“You know,” he adds, “the architecture that has been achieved during these years sends this message. It is a traditional university, but the traditional community and the newness are not in tension with each other. They’re two faces of the same thing.”

As young as it is, Duke has in a sense arrived; nimble and change-happy, it feels confident about itself. It’s hard to document that confidence, but you can feel it, and it’s no small element of the Brodhead legacy. Remember Duke as “the Harvard of the South,” a brag committed to bumper stickers? It was a bumper-sticker sentiment pointing to a lingering insecurity.

It’s striking, Brodhead says, that in 2001 Duke issued a strategic plan with the title “Building on Excellence.” The implied goal was that Duke would “lodge itself more securely in the company of the top universities,” as he puts it. “It doesn’t say that in our new plan. Not because we’ve given up that ambition, but because people understand that this place now is established in the top-ranking universities.”

Brodhead has gone through his own development phase—the through-andthrough Yalie who came to revel in his Dukeness. “You know, the funny thing is everybody knows I was at one place for decades. It was assumed that I was a lifer there. When I came to Duke, it was the beginning of a new life. I worried, would I be homesick? Would I even like it here? But what I never properly estimated was how thrilling it is to get a whole new life.”

One aspect of intellectual life at Duke, new or old, is the idea of a place that “habitually connects the pursuit of knowledge with the search for the social good”—a line from Brodhead’s inaugural address, in September 2004. He went on to say, “If the public is to continue to fund inquiries largely unintelligible to the common understanding, and the progress of knowledge in our time would grind nearly to a halt if this support were lost, universities are going to need to become far less self-enclosed and self-absorbed, to take more pains to demonstrate the value of advanced research for men’s and women’s lives.”

Brodhead’s expression “knowledge in service to society” is now a Duke catchphrase. But in his view, it’s been long embedded in the DNA of Duke. “I was a little surprised to find that people thought my way of talking about it was new. But the reality was not my invention. You come to Duke and you see the Nicholas School together with the Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy Solutions. You see biomedical research in an atmosphere that reaches into the worlds of practice, policy, and training. You see the very first physician-assistant training program. The elevation of the intellect at Duke is not accompanied by the separation of the intellect from the world of practice. I’ve always tried to say, if we have that as a characteristic, let’s ride it.”

Under Brodhead, Duke’s deeper engagement with the world has increasingly become a defining characteristic. Kimberly Jenkins ’76, M.E. ’77, Ph.D. ’80 says the board of trustees helped catalyze, early in Brodhead’s presidency, an Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative; she stepped down as a trustee to become Duke’s first vice provost for innovation and entrepreneurship. “His theme of knowledge in service to society—this is exactly what I&E is,” she says. “You take the brilliance of our faculty, staff, and students, and you turn it into solutions to problems. Once we made that a priority at the university, and gave people the resources to do it, they just took off.”

Brodhead, she recalls, spent a lot of time learning about the already-present pockets of I&E, celebrating the stories of alumni in the I&E community, and underscoring the value in I&E of disciplines like art, history, and English. “I can’t believe how much time he dedicated—hours visiting classrooms, research labs, and even dorms. He always listened, and he always asked a lot of great questions: ‘How did you do this?’ ‘What difference will this make?’ ‘What did it take to get where you are today?’ ‘What else do you need to be successful?’ I mean, he was just on it.”

Visiting the Cube, a Central Campus I&E hub for students, Brodhead managed to get close to their creativity, consuming an energy drink that’s designed to be healthy and donning headgear that records neural processes. “When we would go on the road and meet with alumni all around the country, he would talk about how this work is not only helping solve some of the most pressing problems of our time, but also how this is really transforming the educational experience of our students,” Jenkins says. “And think about the spirit of students who come to Duke—it translates well to entrepreneurship.”

During Brodhead’s presidency, Duke has been an engine for Durham-based entrepreneurship: The university now has more than 3,500 employees who work downtown, including its I&E unit, and it rents more than a million square feet for them to work in. But the university has looked further afield, too, going global in a big way. Duke now has 1,590 international undergrads and 2,963 international graduate and professional students—a grand total of 5,443 international students from 136 countries.

Duke’s research and teaching straddle the globe and the disciplines—studying communicative development among infants in Papua New Guinea, looking at pollution and lung stress in the Andean Plateau, practicing biodiversity conservation in Madagascar, promoting economic development in Kazakhstan, spreading cookstoves throughout rural India, and on and on. The most dramatic expression of global reach is Duke Kunshan University, a joint venture that opened in 2014. DKU advertises itself as blending “liberal education with Chinese tradition in a new approach to elite higher education in China.” DKU offers programs in global health, medical physics, management studies, and environmental policy; a liberal-arts degree program is envisioned over the next few years.

Brodhead acknowledges the risks inherent in DKU; he’s listened to faculty members voice concerns about everything from academic freedom to budgetary burdens. Still, as he puts it, DKU may have vast ambitions, but DKU is not vast. “It’s a little place with a big idea. So was Duke once upon a time.” He sees the potential for Duke to be a disruptive force for higher education in China. And he sees Duke’s enlarging footprint in China giving a significant boost to the university’s global standing.

As he describes DKU, “If uniquely among American universities, Duke could take an American model of education that is deeply desired in China and not native to their traditions; if Duke could bring the model of small classes, of independent questioning, of close attention by teachers to students, of learning how to use your mind as an agent of inquiry, with the kind of innovative curriculum we have here that links the university and the world—the way this could advance Duke in the world is incalculable. If Duke could be known as the university that did that in the most rapidly emerging country, we will have done something truly historic.”

Another sign of the global footprint is the Global Health Institute, headed, since its start just over ten years ago, by Michael Merson. Merson and Brodhead were Yale deans in the 1990s— the School of Public Health for Merson, Yale College for Brodhead. More than eighty faculty members have joined the institute from across campus, creating a network of educators, researchers, and practitioners.

“When you’re the dean of a school, there’s sort of a frame that you work in,” says Merson. “The beauty of the institute is that we were able to be creative and innovative. We were not confined by the usual box that’s put around a school. Imagine that you recruit all these faculty, and they’re part of the institute, but many of them have their primary home elsewhere at the university. That’s not easy in many universities.”

The undergraduate program began in 2013; though global health is not a stand-alone major, some 300 undergraduates now co-major or minor in global health. “We have good opportunities for students to have field experiences and to work with families and communities around a wide spectrum of health issues,” Merson says. “The interdisciplinary nature of what we do, along with the ‘knowledge in service to society’ mantra, is very attractive to students.”

Merson mentions Brodhead’s work in sparking philanthropy, helping form an advisory board, and taking trips to check out global-health initiatives. On just one of those trips, Merson recalls, he and Brodhead in just three weeks visited Singapore, where Duke has a medical-school partnership; China, to scout out what would become Duke Kunshan University; and Tanzania and Uganda, longtime bases for a range of Duke researchers and physicians.

While the Global Health Institute has emerged as a strength of Duke, DukeEngage—another feature of the Brodhead years—has been long thought of as distinctively Duke. The program provides funding and support for selected undergraduates over a summer. They participate in civic-engagement initiatives developed in partnership with particular communities. Under the program’s auspices, students have worked in China, Ghana, Tanzania, Switzerland, England (Durham in particular), and dozens of other global destinations. Domestically, they have been steeped in public-health challenges in New Orleans, immigration issues in Tucson, Arizona, and environmental obstacles in Portland, Oregon.

Eric Mlyn, now the program’s director, chaired a task force set up ten years ago; its charge was, as Mlyn puts it, “to come up with a big idea to use knowledge in service of society.” It was, in fact, known as the Big Idea Committee. “We were looking at what Duke was already good at—we had lots of civic programs already—and at how we could expand that.”

Mlyn sees an early model in the university’s merit-scholarship programs. (At the time, he was overseeing the Robertson Scholars.) Early in his presidency, Brodhead gathered the directors of the various programs, and they told him about the summer opportunities that were available to merit scholars. As Mlyn recalls, “He looked at us and said, ‘That sounds great. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that was available to more students at Duke?’ ” Some three years later, the university had raised $30 million—half from the Gates Foundation, half from The Duke Endowment—to start DukeEngage, with a pilot of ninety students in the summer of 2007.

Among prospective students, DukeEngage is the most-cited reason for their Duke application; almost a quarter of the Trinity College graduating class will have completed DukeEngage. Mlyn is quick to point out that Duke University isn’t the United Way; so the first aim of DukeEngage is educational. But he also considers DukeEngage a reflection of a generational sensibility. “We know that millennials are often politically disengaged. That is, their way of trying to change the world is by doing things directly—not so much building political coalitions, lobbying, and all the things long thought to be necessary for democratic citizenship. I do think this program hits a chord for a generation of students who want to see results quickly. Lobbying the school board has less immediate gratification than tutoring a child, where you see them learn a word in front of you.”

Brodhead may have found big themes to ride through his presidency, but he also found some early challenges—some, in fact, very early. On his first day in office, he was caught up in the public courting, by the Los Angeles Lakers, of head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. After a vociferous student campaign of support, which Brodhead joined, Coach K ended up staying. As Duke’s new president, Brodhead also had to deal with fallout from an agreement to host the national conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement; a registered Duke student organization had sponsored the conference in accordance with university policies. Still, The Jerusalem Post, for one, reported that the conference “stirred up emotions in the Duke community and the Jewish community nationally.” Brodhead, for his part, said at the time, “The decision to allow the conference to be held was in no way an endorsement of the sponsors’ views. At its core, this decision tested the university’s commitment to academic freedom.”

The financial meltdown in 2008-09, and the resulting plunge in Duke’s endowment, provided a more severe test. That happened to coincide with a plan to massively reinvent Duke’s Central Campus into something to be called New Campus; the university had been in the process of looking over architects’ proposals. The grand plan was frozen (though it has since returned in bits and pieces). With all of that, the campus overall never felt like a place in crisis.

The chair of the board of trustees at the time, Rick Wagoner ’75, says he has “great admiration” for the way Brodhead handled the financial crisis. “Dick rolled up his sleeves and led the administration, faculty, and staff in making smart cost cuts. But more impressive was his direction to keep spending on the really strategically important initiatives. Probably most interesting was his decision to actively recruit top-notch faculty during a time when most others were cutting back. I think it’s pretty clear that Duke benefited greatly from that.”

While other universities put themselves through wrenching layoffs, sometimes into the hundreds, Duke’s workforce reductions were handled almost all through attrition or buyouts. For two years the university didn’t award any across-the-board raises, though it did eventually offer $1,000 to lower-paid employees.

“I’ve always felt the way we handled the downturn was Duke at its best,” Brodhead says. “The money we saved by the targeted workforce reduction and by the non-raises meant we didn’t have massive layoffs. I would go to a Q&A session with employees, and I would explain that because we didn’t have raises, 200 or 400 colleagues had jobs now who otherwise would have lost them. You could see that people were proud of themselves—proud to have made a sacrifice. Of course, universities are very decentralized, so every dean had to work on the problem for his or her own school and faculty. Many schools figured out that besides cutting things, there are other ways to deal with a downturn.”

The crisis with the harshest resonance came in 2006, with false rape accusations directed at members of the lacrosse team. The case became media fodder for months, until the prosecution, led by a district attorney up for re-election (and later disbarred), was found to be without merit and the players were vindicated.

The issue, in Brodhead’s view, was never the strength or weakness of Duke’s response; it was the criminal-justice system spinning out of control. “If you had had any normal district attorney, that case would have dissolved.” Despite the common perception at the time, he says, the suspension of the accused players was a campus-safety-related suspension that every university practices. Likewise, he says, the decision that the team wouldn’t play for the rest of the season wasn’t punitive, but rather a response to growing safety concerns. “It was really just a recognition of the fact that the world had gone crazy, and you could not play any normal lacrosse game under those circumstances.”

“It will always be part of our history,” Brodhead says. “But at the same time, what did it show? Did it reveal some horrible thing that continues to be true? I would deny that vehemently. It did help us understand that there was a separateness of athletics from the rest of the university that I believe has been thoroughly cured by this point.”

A thorough cure is a big claim, but here the faculty athletic representative since 2007, psychology and neuroscience professor Martha Putallaz, agrees. She says Brodhead has dug deeply into athletics issues: encouraging a strategic planning process in athletics; expanding the Athletic Council, an oversight committee made up of faculty members; showing up for away as well as home football games, while committing the university to reviving the sport; celebrating the academic achievements of athletes; and even poring through the training manuals handed out to tutors of athletes.

When word broke of the UNC-Chapel Hill scandal around athletes and questionable classwork, Brodhead summoned Putallaz and athletics director Kevin White for firm assurance, as she recalls, “that what’s happening there could not happen here.”

The lacrosse case didn’t just point to an athletic culture not fully embedded in the greater campus culture. It highlighted tensions around race, class, and identity. It provided another indication that Duke is not an insular place; a university campus is a place where tough social issues bubble to the surface. That’s been part of Brodhead’s reality since his own college days: In his senior year Lyndon Johnson was driven from the presidency, and violence took the lives of two leaders of the time, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

There have been other stresses around campus culture during Brodhead’s presidency. Among them, of course, were this past spring’s protests on campuses nationwide, largely fueled by perceived inequities and culminating, at Duke, in the weeklong occupation of the Allen Building. Brodhead looks back on the episode with equanimity: “I’ve never been troubled by protests at a university. Universities are not places for enforced consensus. They’re places where people should voice questions, argue with each other, and raise challenges.”

Back in the spring of 2015, a noose was found hanging in a tree on the Bryan Center Plaza. The next day, students, faculty members, and others gathered in front of Duke Chapel. Addressing the crowd, Brodhead showed himself at once sensitive to the fraught racial history of the South, and a teacher at his core. Even as slavery was ending, lynching remained “a way of demonstrating to black people that violence could be visited on black bodies at any point,” he said. “The circulation of that image was what was really powerful. Seeing this image gives you the message: If you are a person who belongs to a certain category of people, this could happen to you at any time. Black people were made to experience not only the denial of civil rights and of equal standing before the law. They were made to bear the psychic burden of feeling continual vulnerability on grounds of their race.”

Earlier, in the fall of 2013, Brodhead offered another history lesson, at the opening of Duke’s new Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. “As an institution within a larger culture, it’s not surprising that the Duke of older times was saturated with homophobia,” he said. “Last year, students in Blue Devils United brought forward evidence of official intolerance and active repression of homosexuality at Duke from the 1960s. They also shared personal testaments from graduates of that time. These Dukies testified that they could not be the people they knew themselves to be while they were students, could not have the love lives and personal lives they wished, were pathologized— and even when the situation improved slightly, the pressures of swimming against the stream were dispiriting and exhausting.”

He added: “As president of this university, I would like to say today that this university regrets every phase of that history. There is nothing in that past that I will not now confidently and totally repudiate. I regret every act that ever limited the human life of anyone who came here.”

Around issues of diversity and inclusion, Brodhead “has become clearer and more forthright, and has shown increasing leadership,” says Ben Reese, Duke’s vice president for institutional equity. A recent example surrounds the passage last spring of North Carolina House Bill 2, which bans individuals from using public bathrooms that don’t correspond to their biological sex. Brodhead, joined by Provost Sally Kornbluth and Chancellor for Health Affairs Eugene Washington, issued a strongminded statement saying the law “runs counter to the ideals of Duke University—and, we believe, to those of our great state.”

Brodhead hasn’t just said the right words; he’s also made the right hires, in Reese’s view. His senior administration includes Washington, Dean of Arts & Sciences Valerie Ashby, graduate school dean Paula McClain, and Dean of the Chapel Luke Powery—all African American— along with Kornbluth, Duke’s first female provost. “I’ve sat in on virtually every senior leadership search over the past ten years, so I know the process from the inner workings,” says Reese. “You really see the president selecting the best candidate. You also get an indication of how excellence and diversity are related.”

In Brodhead’s view, the opening up of education to more people, to more forms of talent, has been the single most significant development of his adult lifetime.

The organized protests, the other moments of tension and collision, serve as a reminder that, as Brodhead puts it, “You don’t preside over a university on the premise that it’s perfect. You preside over a university on the premise that it’s perfectible.” Writing to the Duke community following this fall’s election— which he characterized, in a sad statement of the obvious, as having produced a high degree of negativity—he found an opportunity to affirm the university’s “respect for differences.” He observed that “while our government undergoes a transition, this university remains steadfast in its commitment to diversity, inclusion, and the free exchange of ideas, and we are unwavering in our support for the value of each member of our community.”

His West Union conversation locates Brodhead, appropriately enough, at the center of that community. Probably not for the first time, he’s asked what advice he might give his successor. “My main advice would be to meet as many different kinds of people as quickly as you can,” he says. “And then when you’ve reached that point, don’t stop doing it.””

  • As editor, Bliwise has overall responsibility for editorial direction and content and for representing the magazine to its various constituencies. He also teaches a seminar in magazine journalism through Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.